Thank You, Dr. Williams

Thursday, February 21, 2019

It is good to see someone prominent answer -- albeit indirectly -- the frequent assertion by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that she is morally right. Walter Williams reflects on what Frederic Bastiat, a French economist who greatly admired America, might think of our country today. Williams first notes Bastiat's clear thinking on the matter of detecting legalized theft:

He said: "See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime."
Williams then notes how far we have fallen:
Image of Bastiat via Wikipedia (public domain).
What then should we call it when two-thirds to three-quarters of a $4 trillion-plus federal budget can be described as Congress taking the property of one American and giving it to another to whom it does not belong? Where do you think Congress gets the billions upon billions of dollars for business and farmer handouts? What about the billions handed out for Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing allowances and thousands of other handouts? There's no Santa Claus or tooth fairy giving Congress the money, and members of Congress are not spending their own money. The only way Congress can give one American $1 is to first take it from another American.

What if I privately took the property of one American to give to another American to help him out? I'm guessing and hoping you'd call it theft and seek to jail me. When Congress does the same thing, it's still theft. The only difference is that it's legalized theft. However, legality alone does not establish morality. Slavery was legal; was it moral? Nazi, Stalinist and Maoist purges were legal, but were they moral?
We are in bad shape now, in terms of how common plunder is. But this pales in comparison to the "Green New Deal" this congresswoman recently proposed. The Boston Herald tries to puts a number on what that would entail:
Taxing the rich won't come close to covering the costs of the Green New Deal, which includes a bunch of socialist policies that have nothing to do with climate change. Manhattan Institute budget expert Brian Riedl has calculated the 10-year costs using liberal and nonpartisan sources. The results are stunning: $32 trillion for a single-payer health care plan; $6.8 trillion for a government jobs guarantee; $2 trillion for education, medical leave, job training and retirement security; and between $5 trillion and $40 trillion to fund universal basic income to support those who are "unwilling" to work. (The final price depends on how "universal" it is.) Grand total? Between $46 trillion and $81 trillion.
It is true that this would leave us destitute, but many observers argue that any smaller move in that direction would look acceptable by comparison, and that this may be the point.

But theft is wrong be it of a penny or a fortune, no matter who does it. The Green New Deal is a wake-up call, but not of the kind the self-proclaimed socialist says it is. Our country has become so accustomed to legalized theft that we will spend the foreseeable future discussing how much of it we will have to endure -- until and unless we challenge the all-too-often unquestioned assumption that it is okay for the government to steal from private citizens.

-- CAV

Assessing Risk Assessment

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Computer security Bruce Schneier wrote some time ago about how easy it can be to accuse others of misjudging risks, even though most people actually have a good intuition about risk:

You may have excellent mountaineering advice, but I can safely ignore it. (Image by aatlas, via Pixabay, license).
This struck me as I listened to yet another conference presenter complaining about security awareness training. He was talking about the difficulty of getting employees at his company to actually follow his security policies... "We have to make people understand the risks," he said.

It seems to me that his co-workers understand the risks better than he does. They know what the real risks are at work, and that they all revolve around not getting the job done. Those risks are real and tangible, and employees feel them all the time. The risks of not following security procedures are much less real. Maybe the employee will get caught, but probably not. And even if he does get caught, the penalties aren't serious.

Given this accurate risk analysis, any rational employee will regularly circumvent security to get his or her job done. That's what the company rewards, and that's what the company actually wants.

"Fire someone who breaks security procedure, quickly and publicly," I suggested to the presenter. "That'll increase security awareness faster than any of your posters or lectures or newsletters." If the risks are real, people will get it.
Coming across this post again after listening to one of Alex Epstein's podcasts on human flourishing provoked my mind to make an interesting connection. (I don't specifically recall which one(s) this was -- my time for listening is currently limited mostly to time I set aside for running errands around town.)

One of Epstein's major themes is how to evaluate the many claims to knowledge that one encounters, and two obstacles that he has named to doing so are (a) experts don't explain things well, and (b) the importance of many such claims are exaggerated. Here, we have an expert quite possibly not being clear enough about an explanation (about, to be fair, a topic that is difficult to begin with) addressing an audience jaded by lots of bad and or over-hyped security advice. Schneier's advice cuts through both problems, and he ends his post by basically advising computer security professionals to be sure they understand risk from their audience's perspective before giving their recommendations.

This is good communications advice, but it can also be turned around and made into good thinking advice regarding claims to new knowledge one encounters. As with any claim, one should try to evaluate it as knowledge by asking oneself how well it integrates (or doesn't) with the rest of one's knowledge. But, assuming the claim is knowledge, how urgent is acting on it? That depends on integrating it within the full context of the rest of one's values. It can be easy to get carried away with new knowledge and forget to do this -- to assess one's own risk of not applying the knowledge. (The most obvious costs of unnecessarily acting on new knowledge are wasted time and effort.) If your primary use of a pen drive is to transfer music or video files between a couple of devices you own, the urgency of encrypting the data is probably zero -- if you work in a nuclear power plant, and use one at all, it is almost certainly for work, and you probably should be fired for it not being encrypted. With any claim to knowledge, one faces two questions: (1) Is it true? and (2) How important is it? 

-- CAV

Recycling Insanity

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. -- Narcotics Anonymous

The folks over at 99% Invisible have fallen into the above-mentioned trap regarding the folly of post-1970's recycling, in an interesting piece about a documentary that may have led to China's recent ban on imports of foreign "recyclables." The film, Plastic China, portrays the squalor of some of the modern rag-pickers this craze has produced:

Image via Wikipedia.
The movie provides a grim look at the actual process of breaking down materials, in an informal recycling facility. It shows the families cutting up plastic, melting, soaking it and turning it into a sludge -- then turning it into hardened pellets. The little girl washes her face in the gray plastic-polluted water and eats fish that have choked on bits of plastic. They live and work (and eat and sleep) near a plastic-shredding machine, inhaling dust and microparticles that are byproducts of the process. The whole village is enveloped in plastic detritus.
At the intersection of our current technology levels and the value of these materials to the furtherance of human life (i.e., the lack thereof), this is exactly what saving everything we possibly can takes. The mask of respectability of recycling has finally been tugged at. Hooray!

But recycling is only one person in the unholy trinity still being worshiped at 99 Percent Invisible:
Somewhere along the way, key parts of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra got lost. We have lost track of reducing and reusing. Single-use products including straws, bags, cups and bottles are a big part of the problem, as are items made of multiple different materials (particularly ones that are hard to pull back apart, like toothpaste tubes).
And so, predictably, just as one nation is stepping back from the abyss of wasted time that is modern recycling, they call for us to double down on the folly by doing more of the grunt work of recycling here and wasting even more money and effort kowtowing to the other two.

They -- and we -- would do well instead to consider the work of John Tierney, who also notes that some of the packaging we're supposed to "reduce" keeps food from spoiling, among other things. But I am getting ahead of myself, and I must first give the angels of 99 Percent Invisible their due, so to speak. I heartily agree with the conclusion of this article:
In the end, Operation National Sword Could be a wake-up call. But only if producers, consumers, and governments tune in and listen.
It is, but not in the narrow sense of saving a mantra at all costs. As I noted early last year, "around the 1970s, hippies changed the goal of recycling from benefiting human life to preserving the natural world."

It's time to ask ourselves the same question the Chinese seem to have asked themselves when they saw a poor girl's life being wasted and degraded by this barbaric rite of slow human sacrifice: Why should we recycle? This is an important question, and the quality of your life depends on it.

-- CAV

NRO's Latest Derailment

Monday, February 18, 2019

National Review is no friend of Ayn Rand, as amply demonstrated first by its infamous non-review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers and confirmed by the fact that it stands by same decades later. As I argued ages ago, this tells us much more about that publication than it does about Rand:

"A Strangely Important Figure." It is the adverb in the title which is important, for it suggests at the same time that it is odd for Rand to have achieved prominence, that she is an oddball, and that Rand's nonconformity somehow makes it implausible that she is important at all. That is basically the whole point of the article and of everything I have ever seen about Rand in National Review. Ayn Rand once compared National Review unfavorably to Christian Science Monitor because the latter admits that it is a Christian publication rather than posing as a secular one... [bold added]
I explored this infatuation with conformity at some length and concluded in part about its author:
This is a man who is out of ideas throwing everything but the kitchen sink (or, for that matter, an actual counterargument) at an intellectual giant. Aside from what I trudged through at length, there's a silly Freudian quip about a scene in one of the novels, there's the usual charge that her circle was a cult, and even a snide comment about how Rand looked. What a gentleman! Every kind of cheap-shot imaginable occurs in this typewritten sneer. The kind of readers who accept such lame substitutes for arguments are the kind who, ultimately, really don't make much of a difference in the world. The kind of readers who do care about ideas will think for themselves and eventually see through the hokum. They'll judge what Rand had to say on its own merits. Who knows? A few may even learn about her for the very first time because of this article. (Something like that drew my attention to Rand for the first time.) Her eloquent voice will still be heard and will still win their minds.
Kevin Williamson hardly goes to such lengths, but his take on the recently-killed California bullet train is similarly unjust regarding Rand. That he bizarrely includes the false and gratuitous smear of Ayn Rand as a "utopian" shows -- at best -- that he is either incredibly sloppy or hates Rand to the point he can't see straight:
Image of first page of utopian document via Wikipedia (public domain).
The fundamental progressive idea is central planning. In the progressive imagination, society is a puzzle to be solved, a grand Rubik's Cube that can be adjusted and readjusted and experimented with until -- perfection! The progressive looks at society the same way a child looks at a model railroad set or an ant farm -- which is to say, from a point of view that is effectively godlike. Human beings, their families, their desires, their pleasures, their dreams, their businesses, their associations, their communities -- all of these are only chessmen to be moved around in pursuit of utopia.

A car can go basically anywhere its driver wants. A train can go only where the central planners have preordained. It is for this reason that trains have long been at the center of the progressive vision. And not only the progressive vision: Such modern utopians as Ayn Rand find in the railroad the model of the kind of society they desire: a society that is designed, that proceeds according to plan. Whose plan? Preferably one of their own, of course, but they'll get on board for almost any old plan if the alternative is no plan at all. [bold added]
Think about the bolded sentence for a moment in light of the fact that an important point Rand makes in the novel is that central planning can't and shouldn't run a even railroad, much less society at large. When called on his lumping together of Rand with her ideological opposites on the left, all of whom he calls "utopians," his feeble defense is basically more of the same:
Her most famous book is a novel about the formation of an ideal community, the thrust of which would have been familiar in Oneida or Arden, even if the politics were different.
No. The book doesn't end with the chapter on the "Utopia of Greed," but with the men who went on strike returning to rebuild America, including the following lessening of government control over the economy:
The rectangle of light in the acres of a farm was the window of the library of Judge Narragansett. He sat at a table, and the light of his lamp fell on the copy of an ancient document. He had marked and crossed out the contradictions in its statements that had once been the cause of its destruction. He was now adding a new clause to its pages: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade ... " (Atlas Shrugged, p. 1073)
If by utopian, Williamson means "dictating how others are to live," he is plainly wrong about Rand. If by utopian, he means "thinking deliberately about how men should organize as a society," perhaps he should admit that he has big problems with the fact that the founding fathers and Ayn Rand did so at all. And if by utopian, he means that Rand asserts that there is a way of life proper to man, he should come clean about why he has a problem with Rand doing so, but not one with other philosophers or with religion.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, February 15, 2019

Blog Roundup

1. At his web site, Objectivist journalist Peter Schwartz has published a lengthy email exchange between himself and Robert Levy of the Cato Institute regarding its tacit anarchism. The following, from Schwartz, cuts to the core of the problem he addresses and comes from a forum post (by himself) that he quotes in full just before the exchange:

This anti-state attitude is why Cato has as its slogan, "Individual Liberty, Free Markets and Peace." The first two are absolute values; the third isn't. The refusal to wage war is not a virtue if we face foreign threats to our freedom. A genuine advocate of individual liberty would not hold "peace" as a fundamental principle. But an anarchist -- whether overt or covert -- would.
In addition, I thought the following analogy was particularly good:
When the Democratic Party declares, for example, that it supports "single-payer" medical care (along with many of its other statist measures), that is a tacit endorsement of the principle of socialism. It doesn't matter that the Party nominally declares itself to be in disagreement with socialism. The logic of its premises leads to socialism and to the acceptance of socialists as allies in achieving its political goals.
I agree that that the Cato Institute should explicitly disavow anarchism.

2. At the blog of the Texas Institute for Property Rights, Brian Phillips exposes a double standard in wide use among "fair housing" advocates:
Image via Wikipedia (public domain).
Housing advocates don't like how some landlords choose to use/trade their property. And so they seek to force landlords to act as the advocates believe best. They think that many landlords judge tenants based solely on the fact that they hold a Section 8 voucher. But those same advocates judge landlords based solely on their refusal to accept those vouchers. The reasons for that refusal are largely irrelevant.

It is irrational for a landlord to judge a tenant solely on the basis of holding a voucher. It is equally irrational for housing advocates to judge landlords solely on their refusal to accept vouchers. If housing advocates truly want to advance their cause, they would quit calling the kettle black.
This might be helpful to remember down the road as the upcoming presidential election starts heating up: I know of at least one candidate, Julian Castro, who falls into that category.

3. At New Ideal, the blog of the Ayn Rand Institute, Elan Journo discusses "Trivializing the Islamist Menace," whether it be by focusing on mass-casualty attacks or dismissing the Islamist threat as overblown:
The wider lesson is twofold. First, this assault on the principle of freedom of speech is an integral feature of the Islamist threat, reflecting the essentially ideas-driven nature of the enemy. Second, it's a serious error to assess the scale of the Islamist threat solely, or even primarily, in terms of mass-casualty attacks, which are difficult to carry out. Doing so misses the full context. Islamists have managed to advance their agenda in several ways that have impacted our society.
Journo correctly notes that the effectiveness of our enemy is due primarily to our allowing it to become effective. The two incorrect ways of thinking about that threat go a long way in explaining why we have.

4. In the interests of comic relief, and as a potential resource to fellow travelers interested in a constructive discussion of immigration, I offer a lengthy post at Selfish Citizenship:
In future, both you and I can save time related to [this] trolling by replying ... with a link to this post. You're welcome.

-- CAV

Choice and Education

Thursday, February 14, 2019

John Stossel writes of one Cade Summers, who floundered in public school and -- like one in five school-aged boys -- ended up on medications to help him pay attention. This was ineffective, as was trying several different schools: He hated all of them.

Then his parents sent him to a private school with an entrepreneurial focus, where the prospect of making money completely changed Summers's attitude. The end of the piece is especially thought-provoking:

This is easier and comes more naturally when there are values at stake. (Image by Wokandapix, via Pixabay (license).)
[Academy of Thought and Industry founder Michael] Strong is proud of students like Summers who flourish at Thought and Industry after struggling at regular schools. He described one who, in New Jersey's public schools, "needed a full-time aide. He was costing the state an enormous amount of money. He came to our school, he did not need an aide."

It's true. We interviewed that student. He told us: "In middle school, elementary school, I was incredibly socially isolated... Coming here is just healing."

The key for him, and many, was following his own interests, rather than following orders.

That's what motivated Cade Summers to get up at 3 a.m. to work in that coffee shop.

"It was me choosing my life," he says.
The school, which is primarily for children of high school age, reminds me a little of Van Damme Academy (which serves younger children and has a very different focus). The similarity lies in an active attempt to engage the student's interest while respecting and promoting their independent judgement. The philosopher and energy activist Alex Epstein has called the latter "the school the world needs to know about." I agree, but perhaps this school is another.

-- CAV

Towards a Green New Lending Crisis?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Writing in the Washington Examiner, Mike Palicz of Americans for Tax Reform warns of recent threats to the Federal Reserve issued by a gang of Democratic Senators that includes several presidential candidates. The threats come in the form of a letter "suggesting" the Fed manipulate interest rates in favor of "green" industries:

The scary part is that they don't really believe this can work. (Image by nattanan23 via Pixabay (license).)
Green investment, which purposefully favors lower-carbon emission investment, is inherently at odds with financial regulators' main goal of ensuring financial stability. Under this scheme, bank loans to companies producing renewable energy would receive a lower risk assessment than under a neutral regime simply for being "green" and favored by Democrats. Conversely, loans to companies producing traditional forms of energy such as oil and coal would be given artificially higher risk weights. This would incentivize banks to load up on green assets they wouldn't otherwise take on, creating an unstable lending environment.
Palicz correctly notes that such economy-wide incentives to assume high-risk loans is a similar recipe to the one that caused the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis.

It is bad enough that we have a central bank at all. It is worse that politicians are quite happy to mis-use it in a way that can so obviously lead to disaster.

-- CAV


Today: Corrected a formatting error.